Coming to know and understand yourself is a difficult and long journey. Questioning your gender makes that journey all the more difficult. We are here to help you make sense of the Islamic perspective.
Gender vs Sex
‘It’s a girl!’ the midwives call when the baby emerges. They are, of course, referring to the material and biological dimension of this new person, identified solely by their reproductive organs. The ‘sex’ is announced and the social conditioning begins: pink for a girl, blue for a boy….
Sex is easier to explain that gender. Sex is biological. If you have female sex hormones your sex is female and if you have male sex hormones then your sex is male.
Gender is much more complicated. It is certainly connected to sex and begins with sex but it is not restricted to or confined by sex. Gender has an evolution which is personal to each individual. It is the ‘norm’ that someone will identify with the gender which ordinarily pertains to their sex and there are both biological, psychological and social reasons for this.
How does gender develop?
Most the time, society’s idea about what a typical girl and a typical boy should be like is inaccurate for any given individual.
Nobody really falls into this comfortably. All people are different. This is the beauty of Allah SWT’s creation:
‘And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and colours. Indeed, in that are signs for those of knowledge’ (Qur’an 30:22)
This beautiful ayat (sign) of the Qur’an reminds us that not only has Allah SWT made everyone different for our own benefit and intrigue, but that our differences are actually a signpost back to Him.
On the diagram above you will see the accepted norm of female and male gender. This is abstract, but you will notice the norms expected of one who is loving is that she will enjoy dolls to play with, that because she should seek beauty she is likely to want to wear dresses and play with her hair. As he is powerful he is likely to like rough play, because he is strong he won’t cry and because he is a provider that he should be the one to go out and work.
Have you noticed how the attributes according to both the male and the female (above) are ALL attributes of Allah SWT and can be found in His beautiful names? As Amina Wadud has pointed out; Allah SWT is non- binary.
Society, custom and upbringing channels ‘male’ and ‘female’ as genders to correspond with the sex identified with at birth. This is not malicious, it is imperfect as it is a ‘best fit’ approach which is always the approach taken for the masses. ‘Best fit’ approaches are refined by challenges made upon them. The reality of gender is that people are likely to fall somewhere in the triangle below. Those who may fall more towards ‘male‘ may identify as binary and male and those who fall more towards ‘female‘ may identify as female. This is ‘binary‘. But there is also ‘non-binary‘. This is where a person may fall more towards ‘neither‘, as shown by the red spot on the diagram. A person may have some ‘gender fluidity‘ which means on some days they lean more towards the ‘male‘ even if they generally identify as ‘non-binary‘.
We have seen in recent years a move to less social conditioning relating to gender and more gender neutrality mainly in a bid to generate equality between men and women because the female typical role is open to exploitation as it is more vulnerable.
Equality between men and women from the Islamic perspective remains a practical issue. Even in liberal countries where discrimination is illegal, women do not receive the same level of education, may not be able to attend mosques and may be somewhat pushed into a corner. Gender is a big deal in Islamic practice and for those who believe the doors of ijtihad (interpretation) are closed they will struggle to understand signs of Allah SWT Who placed everything and everyone in beautiful harmony and for a purpose.
Gender roles and Islam
One of the complications a young Muslim struggling with their gender Identity will face is how to behave as a Muslim in the Muslim setting. For example, ‘If a woman and a man cannot shake hands… who can I shake hands with?’ ‘If women and men are meant to pray separately…. where do I pray?’ ‘If women cannot lead men in prayer and cannot be an imam… where does that leave me?’ ‘If it is adaab to refer to fellow Muslims as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ …how can I ever feel comfortable with that?’ ‘What is my awrah?’ ‘Am I meant to wear a head covering?’
There isn’t one answer that can satisfy every person. Everyone has a different path.
‘So surely, with hardship comes ease, with hardship comes ease.’ (Qur’an 94:5)
There is no doubt about it; if you feel your gender is not the same as your sex you will have to do some soul searching. You will feel conflicted, you may feel ashamed or embarrassed, you may feel that you have let people down. These feelings are the result of not wanting to hurt or disappoint people, especially family. In situations where people feel this way there is a common prayer to make:
May Allah SWT make it easy for you.
Through this difficulty you are feeling, you will come to learn a lot about yourself, about other people and about your deen. There isn’t an answer that can take away the difficulties you are facing but you should know that there is goodness that will come out of the difficulties and you will have an understanding that those who have not had to face this will never have. That means you have deepened your understanding of the signs of Allah SWT and by doing so you have grown closer to Him. Through the soul searching and the hardship you should make sure you never forget that Allah is:
‘Closer to you than your jugular vein’ (Qur’an 50:16)
In this knowledge you should find support through the only One who can really give you that support.
Is it haram to question my gender?
Questioning is never haram. Questioning and having doubts is the most fertile arena for true knowledge to arise. If you are in doubt you should question, but you should do so critically. That means; do not jump to a conclusion. Identity is not easy to understand- it is a process.
It may well be that you are questioning because you have experienced gender dysphoria, you may have have felt uncomfortable with certain pronouns being used in relation to you or you may have felt some discomfort with your body or the way you look in the mirror.
What if I conclude I am not the gender I was assigned at birth?
So now we come to action. Identifying as the opposite gender may or may not entail certain modifications to the way that you dress, behave and interact in society.
The main thing to remember is that your journey is to Allah SWT. The details of the journey are less important. The most important thing is to keep your faith and keep striving.
Patience in the key. You reflect on it for a while on your own. You need to know this is right for you. At the same time, you will be developing strength and you will be building your understanding. All this is useful when you face the world.
Who should I tell?
If you have a close and trusted friend who you trust will be able to support you in this, that would be very powerful for you. After you have gained that initial support you can approach your school. They will be able to advise you of any support groups and will be able to offer you some support within the school setting.
Should I tell my family?
Family is a beautiful thing offering unconditional love and support hopefully forever. But be prepared that family are likely to be judgemental. Families have their own refined sets of values and practices and they will have expectations as well. This is true of most families. When a young person seems to be going off the path that the family would usually expect, whether that is not going to university or moving away or dying hair pink, family will be quick to jump in, and not always in the most diplomatic way.
Hazrat Ali (RA) said:
‘Speak to people according to their understanding’
Family who are from an older generation, perhaps who were brought up in a different country, are unlikely to understand who you are perfectly. It is beyond their current field of experience. Try not to let this get you down. If you get to the point of speaking to family about this, do so gently and speak to them according to their understanding.
What if they reject me?
You need to tend the ground before you plant the tree. Gently, over a period of weeks and months gauge their likely response. If it is completely unfavourable, try not to take it too much to heart. Their response to this issue is based on total ignorance, they don’t know that this is your condition and don’t know how much their opinions are hurting you.
At this point, you may consider it better to try to educate your family subtly through more progressive and understanding family members or through discussions. You may well realise that it is better to keep your identity hidden while you navigate your relationships. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you have good, healthy support outside the family. Keep reminding yourself that you have not done anything wrong. And:
‘Hold on to forgiveness’ (Qur’an 7:199)
because despite the fact that they may struggle to accept your life choices, family care about you deeply. It is better to remember that don’t know what you know and they haven’t experienced what you have experienced. They are likely to just not really know how to deal with your identity.
What can I do now?
- Read. Knowledge is power. It strengthens you and it strengthens your ability to discuss your identity should you wish to do so. Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi have written extensively on gender disparity in Islamic societies. Although they do not specifically in their published books, deal with LGBTQ+ issues, their work opens up the possibility for not having polarised views about gender roles.
- Ask your school to develop clubs and support groups so that you can know that you are not alone.
- Seek guides or teachers that can help you answer any questions from an Islamic point of view. We are able to offer responses to questions raised if you email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Have patience. Don’t rush into anything. Identity is a journey. May it be a beautiful one for you inshaAllah.
There is no fatwa here. No instruction. No judgement. You need to live your own life and make your own mistakes as it is from mistakes that we learn best. But you do need to be able to make informed decisions about the risks you want to take and not behave recklessly. Try to preserve and develop your deen but do so at your own pace. Be forgiving with your parents. Sometimes they will insist too much, but they do it because they care.
Parents or teens with further questions please feel free to contact us on: email@example.com